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The situation is simple and one in which I am sure we have all found ourselves in on many an occasion. I have a coursebook. I am supposed to do Unit 5 today. There is a text in it on page 78. How do I use it? How can I make the most of it? How can I help students learn from the language in the text? Are there any activities I can attach to it? [I do realise of course that this is not the right way to think about things and we should be starting with the learning objectives etc. etc. but let us skip this issue for the time being.] What follows is a lesson plans in 10 simple steps. I believe this concrete example can provide a useful model of how we can ‘tweak’ standard activities and supplement our coursebook.

[NB: This article is based on a (hugely popular) presentation. You can find all the slides below. If you would like to use this lesson with your students, you will also need a handout. Just click here].

Step 1 – Stimulating the students’ curiosity: Ideally, I would like to get my students curious about the text, but how? According to G. Lowenstein, curiosity is the ‘gap’ between what I know is out there and my own knowledge. If I can see something or nothing – I’m not curious; if I can see the vague outline of a shape, then I am! So the key is to give students some idea of the text – and get them to use their imagination to ‘join the dots’. So what we can do is set the context (very briefly), then give students some key words from the text and get them to make up a little story about the content of the text.

Step 2 – Getting students to invest: Now we can take things further.  To maximize interest, we need to get the student to invest by making some concrete predictions about the text. The more they commit themselves, the more interested they will be. One way of doing this is by selecting some sentences from the text (or writing some ourselves), cutting them in half and then giving students only the first part. They will have to use their imagination to complete them. Notice that this gives them some additional information about the text and this makes them even more curious. In addition, it also activates their mental schemata – which makes subsequent processing easier.

Step 3 – Fast reading: One of the skills we want to develop in our students is the ability to read fast, to read for gist without focusing on every word. For this I have found that ‘Cueprompter’ is an excellent tool, but we can just give students the text and tell them they only have 60 seconds to read it in. The aim is to check whether their predictions were right – to see how these sentences should be completed in the light of the information in the text. This gives students a nice focus task – a purpose for reading. Speed is of the essence here – you will see why in the next paragraph.

Step 4 – Slow reading: Now we want our students to read the text more carefully – but how can we get them to do that? The answer is the amazing activity ‘Hidden Message’. It is very easy to prepare. You type (or copy) your text. Then you write a sentence which is your ‘Message’ to your students. Then you take the words of this sentence and insert them into the text! When students do the fast reading task, they do not usually notice these extra words, even though they may feel the text contains some mistakes. Then when you tell them they have to re-read the text to find out what the message is, they are completely shocked! They just love this task! *

Step 5 – Creative writing: Now comes another surprise. At this point you reveal to the students that you have not actually given them the full text. Although it looks like the story is over, this is not the case. So they have to work together to write a few lines in order to complete it. What happened after Ann left school? Notice three things: i) the writing flows naturally from the previous activity  ii) the students have already read the text twice, so they have a very clear idea of the context, the characters, etc. it is easier to complete something than to write something from scratch; and  iii) the task is small and fast – it does not feel onerous (perceptions matter!).

Step 6 – Focus on Language: Now that students are familiar with the text, it is a good idea to focus their attention on language. How should we do that? Whenever I ask my students to highlight useful language, they invariably focus on  i) single words…  ii) …which they do not know. This is where the teacher comes in; we need to explain to students that  ii) …perhaps they do not need to know these words (they may be too rare) and  i) it is best to focus on whole phrases / collocations. What I normally ask my students to do is to highlight expressions which they can understand, but which they would not be able to use.

Step 7 – Vocabulary Revision: OK – this step is for the next lesson. How can we get students to revise vocabulary? One very simple way is to delete some words from the text and then project the passage on the board and get the students to fill in the gaps – without showing them the missing items. This  has three advantages:  i) students get to see these items in context (again);  ii) students realise that very often there are a number of words that could be used (which helps combat the misconception of the ‘one correct answer’ which tests perpetuate) ** and  iii) (crucially) it forces students to retrieve the missing items; retrieval is effortful but it is the key to retention.

Step 8 – Speaking – A personal response: Having finished with the reading, it is vital that we ask ourselves ‘Is there another activity which follows naturally from the text?’ In this case, students could perhaps act out the scene between Anne and Emma Pye. However, there is something better which makes use of the students’ personal experience. Students can imagine a novice teacher like Anne asking them for tips on what to do and not to do. Students have strong views about what they like and they dislike about their teachers and their practices and this would be an excellent opportunity for any teacher not only to get students talking, but also to gain insights into what values/traits they consider important in a teacher.

Step 9 – Homework: There are two problems with H/W:  i) we often leave it till the very end (when students are packing their things – as though it was an afterthought) and ii) we often fail to support students enough. Look at the slide with the e-mail however. It contains ‘tips’ given by another teacher (notice how this links it to the previous step). However, these tips are clearly ridiculous. Apart from the humorous effect, this task is a much improved version of H/W:  i) students have a model (which means they know exactly what they have to do) and  ii) students have the ideas – either from the previous activity or simply by reversing this ludicrous advice. Excellent!  🙂

Step 10 – Recap and ‘dessert’: OK – there are a number of points worth remembering here. For me, the key factor is the students’ own contribution, as can be seen in Steps 2, 5 and 8. The more students invest, the more likely they are to enjoy the session and to benefit from it. The teacher’s role is to ensure that students’ curiosity is aroused (Step 1) and perhaps to introduce an element of incongruity (Step 4) and humour (Step 9) so as to make the lesson more enjoyable. It also helps if the teacher has something funny / interesting for ‘dessert’ as it were. When I do this with teachers, the most common tip they come up with in Step 8 is ‘Get out of the job while you still can’. So I show them this video clip… Enjoy. 🙂

* NB:  i) You can ‘customise’ the message to make it more fun for a particular group: [ e.g. ‘Guys I hope you are going to do better in the next test!’ 🙂 ]  ii) You can produce easy or hard versions by inserting the words in the right or in the wrong order; in the latter case the students have to spot them AND reorder them (this is excellent for Mixed-Ability classes)  iii) You can make the task harder or easier depending on where you put the extra words (e.g. the word ‘being’ is harder to spot in the first phrase than in the second: ‘Just last year she was being a student’ vs ‘Just last being year she was a student’).

** NB: In fact, it is even better if you delete whole phrases (2-3 or more words). This is even more effective in getting students to realise that there are many correct ways of saying the same thing and it provides a good opportunity for vocabulary expansion. For instance, in the first sentence, if you leave out one word (‘Anne felt nervous as she …………. the classroom’) the options you have are ‘entered’ / ‘walked into’ etc.; however, if you leave out the last three words (‘Anne felt nervous as she ……. ……. …….’) then there are more possibilities such as ‘greeted her class’ or ‘was about to start her first lesson’ etc.